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Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel? Check out Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Macho Jesus

Macho Jesus, Lent, and Youth Ministry

“…when we attempt to think of God as the one who communicates and expresses himself in the person Jesus, then we must always remember that this man was crucified…” -Eberhard Jüngel

The Good News of Suffering

If there is one ministry in our churches that is associated with fun and happiness, it’s youth ministry. This is no bad thing. After all, the gospel of Jesus is “good news!” Joy and happiness should be at the heart of youth ministry.

Macho Jesus

But the season of Lent is a good time for youth workers to remember that, even to the God of joy, suffering is no scandal in ministry. During Lent, youth workers should focus not only on their fantastic spring retreats (ours was last week—it was awesome!) but also on the theology of the cross.

The theology of the cross makes the bold claim that Jesus on the cross is the deepest and fullest expression of who God is. God isn’t any less God when God is in the dying Jesus. It is there that God is revealed to us, most fully, as the God of promise and resurrection. The cross is a lens for all other theological reflection, not just a pesky event that happened before Easter Sunday.

The Glory of the Cross

The theology of the cross is a contrast to the so-called “theology of glory,” as Luther called it, which “prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21). The theology of the cross sees God “hidden” in suffering, in self-sacrificing love, rather than expecting God to show up in glory or in our ambitious actions.

This does not negate God’s power, glory, and might—but it does mean to redefine them. The suffering of Jesus on the cross redefines glory. As the theologian Eberhard Jüngel has put it, “God’s mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty” (God as Mystery of the World, 22).

The theology of glory misses all the irony of this redefinition. And thus, the theology of glory has been wielded throughout history to perpetuate authoritarian power and to justify the use of coercion by those who have power. The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love. Even such a statement as “the power of love” sounds absurd and silly to those who are convinced by the theology of glory. But why else did Paul say, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18)?

The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love.

Macho Jesus!

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see the theology of glory at work in our culture and in our churches. We can look to the various appeals of Christian politicians to justify war. We can look to the apocalyptic anticipations of some who seem to think Jesus was just kidding when he came the first time—when he comes THIS time, he means business. We can also look to what I like to call the “macho Jesus” phenomenon.

“Macho Jesus” is a reaction to some popular historical images of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, an introspective sage, and a poet. The macho Jesus contends that Jesus was tough. Real tough. Emphasizing Jesus’ anger, especially the passage in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple (again, they seem to have missed the irony), proponents of the macho Jesus argue that Jesus was manly, proactive, and even aggressive in his mission to save the world.

Saving Jesus from Himself

Concerned that the “traditional” notion of masculinity and the male “gender role” is fading in our culture, macho Jesus proponents present Jesus as a man’s man. He’s presented as triumphant …and usually with big muscles. There’s even one image I’ve seen where Jesus is on the cross, breaking its crossbeam with his huge biceps.

This Jesus can’t be the same guy who prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ association with those who aren’t tough enough to go on—with those who have lost the strength to muster a defense—is utterly lost in the macho Jesus phenomenon.

In youth ministry and in the church at large, the danger we face every Lent is that we’ll skip Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday—or, even worse, that we’ll divorce the resurrected Jesus from the crucified Jesus. After all, “the one who was raised from the dead is the Crucified One…” (God as Mystery of the World, 218). Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power. So we can look with hope not only in our moments of strength but even (especially!) in our moments of weakness. This is good news!

Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power.

As we arrive at Holy Week, let us remember what Jesus told the apostle Paul: “…my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is good news not only for us as individuals, but also for our youth ministries! How can you integrate the crucified Jesus into your ministry this week?

Recommended reading:

The Promise of Despair, by Andrew Root

The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel?  Sign up now to learn more about Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship Study


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

Pluralism: A New Youth Ministry Imperative

My relationship with Rabbi Mark inspired me to understand religious pluralism differently and inspired me to make interfaith dialogue and cooperation not just an important part of my career, but also an imperative part of my Christian walk. It is my hope that youth leaders and ministers also begin to see pluralism as a youth ministry imperative.

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

Pluralism takes on different meanings depending on its context, but what I’m referring to here is Religious Pluralism. It often gets confused with unitarianism or universalism, or Unitarian Universalism, or other theological terms. Religious Pluralism, however, is not a theological term; rather, think of it as a social term.

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

Religious diversity exists, not just globally, but in the United States in particular. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not just the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is likely the most religiously diverse country of all time.

So, while understanding that diversity is a fact, pluralism insists that we engage positively across that diversity.

You can contend that diversity is in and of itself valuable—and I would agree with you—but, diversity doesn’t naturally lead us to positive interactions. All sorts of conflict and violence are caused by diversity; or better put, caused by individuals or groups who are unable or ill-equipped to handle difference.

According to Pluralism.org (a resource I would highly recommend),

“…pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.”

Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes, with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

We don’t have to peer too far into our history to find examples of Christians not only complacently living in isolation from those who are different religiously (or non-religiously), but actively defending the mistreatment (rather, maltreatment) of those who believe differently.

On the flip side, we can also look into our history to find stories of Christians who chose to risk their lives for others, even though they did not profess Christian faith. Surely we want our youth to be the latter.

The Pluralism of Jesus

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment.” As you well know, Jesus affirms, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

The lawyer asks in response, “Well then, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer thought he was pulling a fast one on Jesus, but Jesus responded, of course, with a parable. He talks of a man who was robbed on his way to Jericho when he was suddenly robbed, beat up, and left for dead.

Two different religious elite walk by, and neither one stops to help the man. In fact, their religious obligations kept them from doing so. The Levite, being obligated to stay pure, could not touch a person if that person was bleeding or dead. Likewise, the priest would also be prevented from touching and therefore assisting the man.

And so it was a Samaritan—not only a person despised by first-century Jewish people, but also a completely different religion from Jesus—who stopped to help the man. Jesus, in the story of the Good Samaritan, holds up someone of a different religion as a moral superlative.

Not only that, but the parable seems to insist that we refrain from allowing our religious or spiritual obligations and positions to keep us from serving. Even further, the Good Samaritan gives us permission to be inspired by those of a different faith. Yes, those who believe differently from us have a moral compass, even those we are inclined to see as evil or deplorable.

Pluralism Is Imperative

Do we as Christians want a plurality of religions? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Surely, for most of us—youth ministers in particular—what we want is for young people to be in relationship with Jesus. Pluralism may seem in direct conflict with that desire, but I don’t believe it is necessarily, because (for the most part) in order for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus, they must first be in relationship with Christians.

Whether we like it or not, traditional evangelism sometimes does more to harm relationships than build them up; sometimes even ending a relationship before it’s begun. Yes, we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, but we are also supposed to bear witness to the love of God, and guess how we do that?

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because 33% of American young people are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s population are not Christian. Interestingly enough, all of this diversity of religious and secular worldviews seems to get a lot of blame for the violence and war on the planet. Given that part of our identity as Christians is to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), then making pluralism part of your ethos as a youth ministry leader seems to be a no-brainer. After all, God has made us the ambassadors for the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador’s job is to serve as a go-between, and without pluralism, who would we go between?

Speaking Generously

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because the ninth commandment says not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is so easy to misunderstand and speak untruthfully about those who believe differently from us when we don’t know them.

Nothing is easier to misunderstand than the belief systems and ideological frameworks of others. Teenagers are curious about the world and the people around them. Inevitably, you will get asked a question about another faith—will you be able to answer in a way that does not bear false witness against another person?

Living Missionally

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because we’re raising up the next generation of pastors, deacons, lay-leaders, bishops, worship leaders, youth leaders, and tithers. The world is a changing place and the question stands for our youth—what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?

Does it mean we should build walls around ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with other Christians? Does it mean participating in interfaith cooperation and interfaith dialogue in order to learn more about our neighbors and to serve our communities alongside them? What does it mean?

Remember Paul’s words about Jesus in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Engaging with Pluralism

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

These questions regarding intentional relationships with people of other religious and secular identities are new for the Church in general and youth ministry in particular. So while we may not have the answers, that’s okay—asking the question helps us get the conversation going. Feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts and reflections.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.